Monday, October 03, 2011

God's Abundant Harvest: A World Communion Sunday Sermon

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46

As many of you know by now, I am the daughter of small business owners. My parents started out with a neighborhood grocery store, my father having learned the butchering trade from his father. But before long they obtained a liquor license, started carrying wine and beer, and quickly realized that here was a much more lucrative business. Both children of the Great Depression, there was no question as to what they would do: the choice for financial stability always won the day. They went full time into the liquor trade.

And so I grew up in a big apartment over a liquor store. It would be fair to say that I grew up in close proximity to wine. My parents always had wine with dinner on Sunday nights, for many years their one day off each week. For some reason never explained, they had wine at home only when my mother cooked Italian food. And from a fairly young age I came to appreciate that a good glass of wine “put gladness in the heart,” as the Psalms tell us [Psalm 4:7].

But, growing up in a liquor store, I saw the other side of the love of wine as well. There came a time when I recognized a certain look on my mother or father’s face, a look that indicated they were troubled at the toll the love of wine was taking on a neighbor or a friend. My parents developed a good instinct for signs of alcohol abuse, and they fretted over the wellbeing of some of their best customers. As the Psalms also tell us, wine can be a “mocker,” a waster of lives, a wrecker of fortunes [Proverbs 20:1].

And there you have it: the wisdom scripture holds about wine. On the one hand, wine is seen in scripture as a sign of God’s gracious care and abundance. Wine gives a merry heart [Ecclesiastes 9:7] and gladdens life [Ecclesiastes 10:19]. A glorious feast with good wine is promised by God on the Holy Mountain [Isaiah 25:6], and wine and grain are a part of God’s covenant promise of land and abundance [Isaiah 36:17].

But for every mention of wine in the context of abundance and care, there are more mentions of the devastating effects of too much wine, or the wrong wine, or wine imbibed without care, for the wrong reason. Oppressors are said to be drunk with blood as with wine [Isaiah 49:26], and the people are warned away from wine at times of war and trouble [Jeremiah 35:14]. Wine is said to take away the understanding [Hosea 4:11], and the trials of life are compared to “wine that makes us reel” [Psalm 60:3].

In other words, scripture confirms what we already know to be true about wine from our own experience. That it can be a good and delicious and delightful thing under the right circumstances, and a devastating thing under the wrong circumstances. It can make life beautiful or destroy it utterly. And so, it is up to us to discern, what is a good and right and appropriate use of this gift from God? And what is a misuse of it?

Our passages for today, for World Communion Sunday, also show us the good uses and tragic misuses of God’s gracious gifts, and the outcomes we can expect when we cannot learn how to share them. Both passages center on vineyards, those places whose purpose is the production of wine. These are hard passages for a day whose purpose is to encourage us to seek unity, to find pathways to peace. In our reading from Isaiah we get a sense of the prophet at his most dramatic. The passage is known as a “Song of the Vineyard,” and it is a play on a very well-known genre of the biblical era, a song for a wedding feast. Imagine the scene with me. All the guests would be assembled, reclining around tables groaning with the best food and wine. A bard would rise in the midst of the festivities and sing to the bride and the groom and all their guests, a song of love, comparing it to delicious and fine wine. Except, Isaiah fools his audience, he pulls a bait and switch. He sets them up for an unpleasant surprise, because… there is no fine wine here, only wild, bitter grapes, and there is no love here, only violence and discord.

Matthew’s parable is hardly any better. Here, too, the setting is a vineyard… a place whose purpose, ultimately, is the creation of wine, which can be a symbol of God’s abundant love and care for us. Only… there is discord between the owner of the vineyard and the workers. That is putting it mildly. There is murder and there is mayhem. Even the owner’s own son is a victim of the strife. The condemnation pronounced at the end is harsh: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” [Matthew 21:43].

Matthew’s threats are so disturbing, and, honestly, out of character with the gospel as a whole. Just a few chapters later, and Matthew will show us a Jesus who pours out a goblet of wine to be shared with his friends, saying “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” [Matthew 26:27b-28]. And still later, a Jesus on the cross, who refuses the wine that might lessen his suffering [Matthew 27:34]. And finally, Matthew shows us a risen Jesus, one who emerges from the grave breathing forgiveness and a vision of God’s reign to which all are invited, a table at which all are welcome [Matthew 28:18-20].

Here’s what I take away from these readings for us today. The fatal error in both cases, in Isaiah’s potent love-song-gone-wrong as well as in Jesus’ violent and unsettling parable, is this: No one is sharing. Everyone is hoarding. Everyone is defending their so-called rights to exclusive ownership of God’s gifts with violence.

A couple of Sundays ago, I came across a review of a new book called Three Famines: Starvation and Politics, by Thomas Keneally. He’s the author of “Schindler’s List.” He demonstrates, by examining the causes of the great Irish potato famine of 1845, the 1943 Bengali famine, and the Ethiopian famine of the 1980’s, that in no case was there ever a food production problem. There was always plenty of food. Rather, there was a food distribution problem. There was a food withholding problem, one created by governments who had no interest in helping hungry people. Famine is not created by nature. Famines are created by humans who refuse to distribute food equitably.[i]

This is not God’s way. This is a pathway neither to unity nor to peace. The gifts of God can be good and delicious and delightful when shared. And they can be, and usually are, the source of devastation when misused or taken for granted. They can make life beautiful or destroy it utterly. Justice is the key. The peace that comes with justice is the goal.

An old bumper sticker says, “If you want peace, work for justice.” How simple, and at the same time, how hard. It’s overwhelming. Who among us feels prepared? Who among us has the energy? How can we even begin?

It is a beautiful thing that the Sunday we set aside to remind us of God’s plan for our unity and peace is also a day very near the annual celebration of a Christian saint who so fully embodied that path. Saint Francis of Assisi has captured the imaginations of Christians and non-Christians alike. We are moved by the simplicity of his message, which is this: we start with the assumption that we can be instruments of God’s peace and justice, one day, one relationship, one action at a time.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled,

as to console; to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

God longs to welcome us to the table. God desires abundance for us. God wants to give us that which is beautiful and delicious and gladdens the heart. We can be channels for God’s desires. We can live out God’s invitation by choosing to sow love, pardon, faith, hope and joy in each encounter. We can help to create a space for God’s communion table by giving consolation, and pardon, and understanding wherever they are needed. We can be a part of God’s abundant harvest. God promises there will be enough for all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Johann Hari, “Famine, the Unnecessary Evil: Review of Three Famines: Starvation and Politics,” New York Times Book Review, September 18, 2011, BR9.

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